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The Engaged Continuing Education Leader: Critical for the Future of Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | The Engaged Continuing Education Leader: Critical for the Future of Higher Ed
Senior institutional leaders, academic divisional leaders and continuing education leaders need to consciously collaborate to create access to high-quality postsecondary opportunities for the growing population of non-traditional students.

Continuing higher education has successfully focused on providing adult learners with access to traditional learning through the use of flexible formats such as weekend, evening and online programming offered in a variety of accelerated learning formats. Depending on institutional type, many colleges and universities have adopted one or more of these modalities to provide appropriate learning opportunities for adults. Higher education, including continuing education programs, offer these modalities to broaden opportunities for adults to cultivate space in the educational community and to develop skills and values that provide opportunities to exercise some degree of choice in the process. However, the need for a workforce that is globally and technically competitive, and the replacement of an aging workforce that will require new skill sets, are presenting greater demands upon the academy to provide solutions to these complex challenges.

As our universities and colleges undergo evolution driven by advances in technology, a better understanding of cognitive learning (and by-concerns about cost and job-market demands) leads us to develop a pivotal question that must be answered: What role will continuing education leaders play in helping their colleges and universities address these growing concerns?

Successful continuing education leaders will strive to be more engaged with their respective communities. They will identify their units’ ability to meet the needs of adult learners and their families, to keep pace with an expanding list of responsibilities that range from promoting civil discourse to preparing the next generation of scientists and researchers, while ensuring continued access to American higher education.

Continuing education leaders must continually remind senior administration at their universities and colleges that we know one thing: our communities. Many of our units have leveraged civic engagement/lifelong learning as a cornerstone of our existence in the higher education setting. We have consistently worked with business and industry, global partners, K-12 education, local, state and federal government, and within the academy to provide undergraduate, graduate, certificate training and specialized educational opportunities to the public and constituents. Continuing education leaders must continue to initiate university-wide discussions and form task forces or committees concerning the university’s involvement in community engagement and lifelong learning. It will continue to be important for universities and colleges and their continuing education divisions to initiate consultation processes with government and community agencies that allow collaboration and cooperation in providing solutions concerning community issues.

Throughout the history of continuing education, there have been some in academe who feel that these operations lie outside the core functions of the college or university. While continuing education leaders and their programs are hailed for their revenue generating capacity in many higher education settings, they are typically not considered part of one of the university’s core functions: research. Even so, many continuing education units in higher education already engage in both market research and impact assessment.

Continuing education leaders must initiate efforts with academic units of the university to help adjust the perception that they do not value research. Continuing education operations can provide academic units with research opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. Moreover, because of their community engagement efforts, continuing education leaders may be able to provide academic units with larger research projects requiring an interdisciplinary approach as they occur in the community.

Knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange have long served as foundational principles for continuing education leaders and their programs. Continuing educators can play a central role in the efforts at community-based research and helping our colleges and universities to engage with our communities more visibly and effectively.

Mary Walshok wrote in 2012 that, “New realities require a different way of thinking and acting. Trends and needs in the larger society—rather than the existing curriculum of departments or individual needs of learners—must shape the approach of continuing higher education.”

Continuing education leaders must advocate for changes that address the concerns of adult learners attending universities and colleges. Adult learners’ lives have been touched in recent years with the restructuring of jobs requiring in some cases, multiple career changes, and the ever-daunting task of raising a family in the face of global and technological change. Coupled with these and other changes has been a steady increase in diversity in the adult learner population. Current social, technological, demographic and economic conditions in our society have caused many adult learners to seek higher education as a solution in preparing for change at home, in society and the workplace.

Continuing education leaders should advocate that the needs of adult learners can no longer be subjugated to the periphery of the academy. It is important that continuing educators provide leadership that will help their respective colleges and universities to become more responsive, connected and engaged in serving an ever-growing population of adult learners. Continuing educators work with many sectors of their community and provide great insights and knowledge about those avenues.

Higher education must take a leadership role with local communities, regions, states and beyond that forge new partnerships in the education of adult learners. Creating a climate that is collaborative, consistent, inviting and creative will help higher education engage adult learners more effectively. Moreover, it may prepare colleges and universities to be more involved in the resolution of the many complex issues our communities face today and in the future.

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